San Juan, Puerto Rico - Among the many missions that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, one of their top responsibilities is to protect and maintain the waters of the United States, including navigable waterways, through its Regulatory Program.
Jacksonville District administers the largest regulatory permitting program in the Corps, and the regulatory section at the Antilles office, headed by Section Chief Sindulfo Castillo, is responsible for the permitting efforts in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.
Every year the Antilles office receives dozens of requests for permits from individuals and businesses intending to either build infrastructure or implement innovations for issues affecting the islands’ ecosystems.
In order to assist applicants navigate the permitting process, Castillo hosts inter-agency meetings which allows applicants the opportunity to present their proposals and interact with federal and local representatives.
“These meetings are a pre-application step, where we explain the type of permits that are needed and the process for obtaining those,” details Castillo. “We also introduce the different agencies that might be involved in each specific project.”
The meetings, which were suspended temporarily due to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, are held monthly in Puerto Rico and quarterly in the Virgin Islands.
The latest meeting was conducted Feb. 6 in San Juan, and was attended by representatives from the Environment Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - National Marine Fisheries Service Protected Resources Division and Habitat Conservation Division, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, Puerto Rico Planning Board and Puerto Rico’s State Historic Preservation Office.
“These interagency meetings are really important for local developers to get a preliminary idea of how the federal agencies view their project and what requirements we are going to ask,” said Felix Lopez an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “That way they can build that into their design so there are no surprises when they submit for a permit.”
At the latest gathering, one of the proposals presented was a design for preventive barriers meant to reduce seasonal sargassum, a brown algae species typically forming large floating masses on the ocean surface. According to the presenter the algae not only has a negative effect on tourism, as is a nuisance for beachgoers, but causes additional drawbacks such as making it complicated for nesting sea turtles to arrive at shore; and for hatchlings to reach the ocean.
Another project presented by a non-profit organization in Puerto Rico involves restoration of sea grass, harmed by the hurricanes that devastated the island in 2017, the flowering plants which grow in marine environments are considered a key component of the region’s natural infrastructure and resilience.
Each applicant is given an hour-long block in which to present their project, to ask and answer questions and to learn about potential hurdles they need to overcome in order for the appropriate permits to be issued.
Prior to attending the meetings, many applicants are not aware of all necessary steps and requirements each agency might have in order for their proposed projects to be authorized.
All federal agencies have an obligation to ensure that all permits issued comply with all applicable laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act. The ultimate goal of each permitting action is to prevent aquatic resources from being negatively impacted by the proposed projects.
The meetings are also beneficial for the participating agencies, not just the petitioner. According to U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. David Otani, the meetings provide opportunities for the local and federal agencies to learn each other’s responsibilities, as many of those overlap. “We are able to work together and decide what the applicant needs together and make sure that we are aligned” said Otani.
A consultation between the applicant and the Corps is a normal step of the permitting request and while attending the interagency meeting is not required, it is highly encouraged as doing so could help expedite the process of obtaining the permits.
Eric Correa, a representative with the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board agrees. “These meetings are very important because they allow the regulator agencies and the petitioner to reach a point where we can understand each other” he said, adding that when it comes time for the agencies to evaluate the permit, an applicant that attended the meeting has had all their questions clarified, have an understanding of the process and turn in an application that is complete. “And we can accelerate the process.”